Sonic Mania: Sega Runs To The Past

Many know Sonic as the lovable blue hedgehog that fights against the evil Dr. Eggman alongside his friends and allies. His charm and amazing soundtracks are some of the most memorable components for kids who grew up in the late 80’s and 90’s. He was all the rage, catapulting into stardom that would cement him in gaming history and pop culture for years to come.

Sonic was a huge success early in its entertainment lifetime making it sort-of a child star among its contemporaries. And much like the looming stereotype that surrounds many child stars of the 90’s, the Sonic franchise went through a bit of a rough patch of its own. Sporting several different game-styles, genres, and polygons that the franchise probably should’ve never experimented with – Sonic Adventure is exempt of this no debating allowed – the Sonic franchise found itself walking a thin line of mediocrity. The simplistic platformer that was once great on the Sega Genesis has since lost its enticement.

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When you’ve exhausted all possible options – and I mean all possible options – sometimes the best thing to do is go back to square one. With the help of some passionate fans of the blue speedster in Headcannon studios and PadogaWest games, and a proven programmer, Chris “Taxman” Whitehead, Sega is bringing Sonic back. The chosen title of this game is Sonic Mania but does it give players the craze and obsession the franchise once had in the 90’s? Or does it continue to give false hope for our beloved hedgehog?

When a developer is handed the keys to a popular franchise, they have to tread carefully. That statement couldn’t be truer in the case of Sonic Mania. Ever since its announcement at San-Diego comic-con on July 2016, all eyes have been on the game and its development team. The reveal brought many, including myself, back to the days of the Sega Genesis, toying with the idea that Sonic could be fun to play again.

The colorful levels, the ever nostalgic 16-bit era soundtrack and graphics, and of course the speed! All things that made us fall in love with Sega’s mascot the first time around. The only issue is that, although the Sonic cycle is a valid theory – Seriously look it up – I subscribe to being cautiously optimistic, especially with upcoming Sonic titles. Judging by the last Sonic venture – the Sonic Boom series – I had every right to withhold my excitement until the game’s release.

Fast forward to its release date. I avoided every single rating and review I could, which is tough to do in the modern gaming universe. I boot up Sonic Mania on our Nintendo Switch and go right into the game. A well-animated intro graces you as the game starts up, laying down the plot device. Despite it being a great effort to incorporate a story to the 2D side-scrolling platformer, much like the original installment, I found myself not caring for a storytelling experience in Sonic Mania.

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At any rate, pressing any button will uncover a title screen that resembled that of the Genesis Sonic games and the building blocks for nostalgia began. As you travel to the main screen you’ll see the main game mode called Mania Mode, with some unlockable game modes accompanying it in Time Attack, a mode to set the best record for previously completed zones, and a multiplayer split-screen mode called Competition. Selecting Mania Mode brings you to a screen that allows you to select a save slot or, for those who love the feeling of frustration, a No Save mode. I went with a save slot, thinking that if this game is as advertised then I will definitely need it.

Sonic Mania begins the same way every mainline 2D Sonic the Hedgehog game has in the past, with the Green Hill Zone. This is when I understood that Sonic Mania was no mere Sonic Genesis era clone. No, Sonic Mania looked to take the best bits of Sonic the Hedgehog one through three and respectfully expand on it. Act one played like a beautiful remaster to the Green Hill Zone levels of the past, serving almost as a confirmation that you won’t find revisions to the way Sonic handles. There were no new button mechanics, no new abilities for Sonic or his playable friend’s Knuckles and Tails.

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Act one was exactly what you would expect from a 2D Sonic game and for once that was exactly what we needed. This was a mark of development genius, creating a line of familiarity to help ease us into the new stages. In fact, in a lot of ways, this made the new levels that followed Green Hill Zone seem like they were always a part of the Sonic 2D universe.

A good reason for this feeling of “I’ve played this before” has to do with the new level designs in conjunction with the reimaginings of zones from previous games. I’ve played through to the Titanic Monarch Zone, which I understand is the “last level” – a secret level is playable when you collect all chaos emeralds – so I have counted about four new levels in this game. The first of the new zones I encountered was the Studiopolis Zone being the third level of Sonic Mania.

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This zone is full of neon lights, TV’s, electrical devices and high skyscrapers; meant to give you the feel of a broadcasting paradise. As I moved forward I ran across and destroyed monitor power-ups that contained abilities like the Hyper Ring, Power Sneakers, and invincibility. I went through loops, jumped on springs and collected coins all while going as fast I can. When I completed the first act I realized that this zone has never existed in a previous Sonic game. It was this weird sense of consciousness, understanding this environment was new yet I carried this overwhelming feeling like I’ve been here before. It wasn’t spooky like the usual deja-vu experience. It was more joyous than that, often making me want to replay these levels in an effort to recreate those feelings.

Then there are the brilliant reimaginings of levels from previous Sonic games like the Lava Reef Zone from Sonic & Knuckles and the Oil Ocean Zone from Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Aside from a sharper look, the level layout has changed as well, fusing nostalgia with a new adventure in an almost perfect way. It doesn’t destroy the original versions of these levels but it does extend the legacy a bit, creating pristine memories in a setting that is fundamentally the same as it was in their original games. This truly only works with all the pieces in play that make up Sonic Mania. The new levels, remixed soundtracks, the retro engine by Chris “Taxman” Whitehead that gives this game a nice polish while sporting a 16-bit presence. These fragments together make up one of the better experiences I’ve had with a Sonic game in the past decade.

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I really enjoyed my time with Sonic Mania and have no plans of putting it down anytime soon. I haven’t found many reasons to give up playing, even in the harder stages like Oil Ocean Zone and Mirage Saloon, both becoming my favorite levels albeit being the more difficult ones. The levels may take longer than you would like, some taking me over five minutes to complete, but Sonic Mania finds ways to keep you hooked and entertained. With a high replay value, a true to form level design and gameplay, and just an overall passion-driven nostalgic execution; Sonic Mania delivers in ways that make you believe in the franchise again.

Sonic Mania is available on the PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and PC (August 29th) for $19.99 digital download.  

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